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Isola Madre – Mountains, Seaside And Relaxation

Half the fun of visiting Isola Mad re lies in the approach. The great passenger boats rumble across the lake towards the island, slackening their speed as they near the landing stage. This gives pleasure-seekers on the foredeck the opportunity to read the composition in front of them. The villa, large and plain, presents its rectangular front at the top of the picture, thinly screened by palm trees, oleanders (Nerium) and climbers. Below it, several big terraces descend towards the visitor, one of them covered entirely, like a green render, in the foliage of the creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

But best of all is the vegetation scattered along the rocky shore, where romantically tilted outcrops of slaty grey rock sprout curtains of pink and green, with the giant rosettes of variously coloured Agave hanging out over the lapping waves. As an overture, this is hard to beat, and, like all good overtures, it sets the tone for what is to come. The crown of a silver-grey gum or Eucalyptus leans elegantly over the staircase as the visitor climbs on to the first terrace past massed bedding, always of the first quality, and steps into this floral wonderland through the pedimented arch.

The whole island is taken up with the garden and house. Nothing could be more different from the atmosphere on the sister island of Isola Bella, just a short distance away. There, all is splendour, nobility, state and parade. This, by contrast, is carpet slippers and afternoon tea. Both are unmissable, but the order in which they should be seen is quite clear. Some visitors feel that the crush and blaze of Isola Bella is such a knockout blow that it quite does them in, so they skip Isola Madre for a lie down in a darkened room. How wrong they are. What is seen now in a walk around Isola Madre is the result of a series of modifications over many centuries.

The lasting impression is of a richly planted ornamental garden in the English taste, laid out like soft furnishing over and around a thoroughly Italian framework of steps, clean lines and regular rhythms. The combination is a very happy one, with neither format quite gaining the upper hand, so that honour is retained on both sides. Above all, in this happy mingling of contrasting styles, the real victor is the view, framed at intervals across the dark blue lake to mountains, promontories, other islands and lakeshore promenades. It is easy enough here to find a quiet corner to contemplate the scenery and gather thoughts.

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